As schools open their doors for the 2017-2018 school year, it is a good time to discuss students, schools, and mental health. Recently, we learned that suicides have spiked in middle school. Young people are still bullied, often online.
Sadly, national and world events can be far more alarming to children than adults might realize.
Schools should be on the front line, working with parents and helping students to adjust to the difficulties they face.
According to the CDC, every year, approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide. Even very young children can struggle with emotional difficulties. Our public schools should be doing more to address mental illness in both children and teens.
Unfortunately, the corporate takeover of public schools and the attempts to convert schools into simplistic, one-size-fits-all factory learning (preferably with every student online), leaves little room for the complexities children and teens bring to school when it comes to mental health.
We should not confuse social-emotional learning (SEL) that focuses on unnecessary data collection involving children, with helping children who have emotional difficulties. SEL is associated with online learning. Real mental health issues are about assisting students when they show up at school with difficulties, so they will feel better about themselves and others. Students with mental health difficulties are not able to learn well in school.
Until there is a school shooting, a suicide, a bullying incident, or a student is arrested for outlandish behavior, and these days that can include very young exasperated children in kindergarten, school officials do little to address the real mental health needs of children. When they do, it is usually in a punitive manner. The incarceration rate of youth is high and the draconian zero tolerance laws leave students with mental health issues lost in a world that cares little about them.
How do principals and teachers address the serious mental health needs of children, when the overall focus is to make good test scores and little else? Children also get lost in too much meaningless data collection.
Here is what public schools should not be doing:
1. Ignoring parents with concerns about their child’s behavior. Not reaching out to parents when the school recognizes that a student is acting differently and showing warning signs of mental illness.
2. Replacing teachers with computers. Machines do not provide students with the human connections they need to do well in life.
3. Ignoring cyberbullying. While schools cannot control what students do and say on the computer after school, they can address cyberbullying and be on the lookout for when it occurs.
4. Laying-off guidance counselors who provide services concerning mental health to children and their families, or who redirect families to those who can help their children. Or pushing high school guidance counselors into only the role of career counseling. They also should not be stripped of their counseling duties in order to focus solely on administrating high-stakes testing.
5. Eliminating special education teachers with special training in understanding emotional disturbances. These teachers should also not be replaced with substitutes like Teach for America who know little about teaching students with emotional and behavioral problems.
6. Putting all children including those with serious emotional disabilities, in oversized regular classes and then withdrawing support. Also, poor test scores of students with emotional-behavioral disabilities should not be used to shut-down their special ed. support programs! Students with mental difficulties should be given waivers on such tests.
7. Making class sizes so huge that teachers are unable to get to know their students and understand the personal problems they may face.
8. Dumping tons of meaningless paperwork on teachers to take them away from the kind of information about a student that really matters. Students are more important than huge amounts of data.
9. Not taking students and what they say seriously. Listen.
10. Never providing students an outlet to express themselves. Not including free journal (narrative) writing, or, rarely, permitting students to ask questions and state their opinions.
11. Removing the arts like drawing, painting, drama and music. These subjects are often therapeutic to students with mental health difficulties.
12. Refusing to provide alternative kinds of education programs within the public school district for students who need a different way of learning. Alternative schools can help keep students in school.
13. Punishing or pushing aside students with anger management difficulties, or never structuring their environment to assist them in a compassionate manner.
14. Not providing teachers with professional development to understand how to best identify students in crisis.
15. Ignoring gifted and talented programming for students with extraordinarily high intelligent quotients, who see the world differently and exhibit high sensitivities.
16. Acting like high-stakes testing is a true measure of a student’s worth.
17. Reducing or eliminating a student’s right and access to a legitimate break from school work.
18. Using corporal punishment or verbally abusing students when they are troubled.
19. Making fun or talking about students in a derogatory manner behind their backs or to their faces.
20. Eliminating school nursing positions. Without nursing services students might not have their medication administered correctly.
21. Not communicating with other staff members about a student’s mental health problems.
22. Refusing to set up meetings with teachers and parents concerning a student’s behavioral and emotional difficulties.
23. Paying more attention to academic and social data and not the student.
24. Never permitting young children recess breaks to regroup, or older students times to socialize. Denying children breaks from doing schoolwork to play is child abuse. How so many schools have gotten away with this over the years is atrocious.
25. Dismissing national and world events. Teachers and staff should be prepared and understand how to address the troubling events that unfold in the news. The way they approach these issues should depend on the age group and the sensitive nature of what has occurred.
26. Schools should not understaff mental health providers in schools such as School Social Workers and School Psychologists who can support students individually and foster social -emotional supports systemically. (Contributed by Karey Hansen)
If you can think of other examples of what public schools should not be doing when it comes to assisting students with mental health problems please let me know and I will add it to the list.
Public schools can go a long way towards assisting students who have serious mental health problems. They can lend support and guide students to the right place to get help. They can display sincere compassion and be a positive anchor in an otherwise rough sea.
We need to readdress what public schools should mean in our democratic, free society and how they can assist students in crisis.
*This was originally posted on August 12, 2014, but was revised.
Karen Bracken says
I personally believe the destruction of the family unit is the real reason our children find it so difficult to cope with life. When I was a child I came home to mom waiting at the door for my arrival. We would review the day and talk about the good and the bad. Back then children had an engaged set of parents. Today most kids come home to an empty house. They are raised by Day Care workers. When children come home today they are met with an empty house and no one to talk to when they had a bad day. So kids internalize. Many go to their rooms where they find comfort in the computer. So I am sorry putting the burden of mental health in the school system is bound to fail. We need to restore the family. Our President should find ways to reduce the inflated cost of living that requires two incomes just to feed our families. Make it less expensive to live and I believe more mothers or fathers would stay home and parent their children.
Nancy Bailey says
I learned years ago as a teacher, Karen, that I had no control over my student’s home life. Like you, I’d love to see every child go home to a loving parent.
Even if that were the case, mental health issues are not always tied to family dynamics. They can be related to biochemical, genetic, neurological problems etc.
Good schools try to do what’s best for students no matter what is happening on the home front or what kind of behavior they present..
I think it is easy to say what should not be done. Clearly you are suggesting that if we do the opposite of what you say not to do that will provide the solution for children who are struggling with mental health issues. I think a lot of what you have written is pretty simplistic in light of the serious mental illnesses we are seeing in school-aged children. First, school social workers don’t provide mental health counseling. Most school psychologists do testing.
I am a trained mental health therapist and a special education teacher who has worked in large city inner city schools. A huge problem is social media – it contributes to physical fights, bullying, suicides, etc. I am not sure what the school can do about that since it occurs outside of school but the ramifications are experienced in school. Maybe educating parents about the pros and cons and asking them to think carefully about when and how to allow access. I had a second grade student with his own iPhone.
I think using a trauma informed school model is a big step in the right direction. I also think that stepping in and getting children hospitalized when needed is also something that needs to be done more often. There are community agencies that assist with that. They will come to the school and evaluate the student to determine the level of services needed.
We also need to stop accepting that violence to teachers is part of the job. If a child is violent he is not in the right placement, the plan that was developed was not being implemented, or the plan is not appropriate. Very often little support is even offered to teachers who were assaulted. Some schools are partnering with community agencies to establish clinics in the schools to provide mental health counseling and in-the-moment crisis intervention services as preventative measures.
We also need to talk to kids about any violent incident they witness at school – anything from a student tantruming and throwing chairs, to threats to assaults. Usually we don’t but kids need to be able to process their feelings. It doesn’t take a mental health expert to do that. Just someone who cares enough to ask, “How are you feeling after what just happened?” And then just listen.
Regarding school shootings, why are schools only in a reaction mode? We get trained in lock down procedures. If it has come to that it is too late. Why aren’t schools modeling their prevention programs after business and industry who has successfully grappled with this problem for decades. A very good example is the multi-layered prevention (and swift response) program the US Postal Service has. It used to be known as the company where employees shoot up the place (“going postal”) but when was the last time there was a postal shooting? They took care of the problem. There is no reason schools can’t do the same, especially since most workplace/school shootings are preventable.
If you want to talk about mental health in school these are the issues that I think need to be addressed. The solutions that will directly affect it.
Nancy Bailey says
Great suggestions, Susan!
Yes, my list isn’t perfect. I will be the first to admit that. I wanted to stick it back out there since school was starting and after what happened in Charlottesville.
I hoped for good discussion and you helped provide that. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.
Roy Turrentine says
Good list. I sometimes wonder if we can ever do,all,those things, even if we had the money. Where would we get the time? Still most things are, as was pointed out above, simple. We should do,all,those things. But where do you get the time?
Nancy Bailey says
Good point, Roy, but remember, not all children require help, and also not at the same time.
Still, many schools have become so focused on data and tech that special services are pushed aside.
I’m also not sure how many schools have special ed. classes and support for students with emotional and behavioral problems. After IDEA it seemed frowned upon. If you have any insight on this I’d like to hear it